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It’s Not Easy Being Green…

Becoming a more sustainable operation has its challenges.

A recent International Sign Association (ISA) survey found that 72 percent of sign companies consider sustainability strategies "important" or "very important." However, the survey also revealed that 65 percent of the respondents said their personal knowledge of sustainable practices was poor or fair, as were their companies' environmental efforts (53 percent).

2010 ISA Sustainability Survey

At the same time, customers' needs are evolving: A 2011 survey found that 56 percent of wide-format print clients prefer green printing, up from 43 percent in 2009.

So how do you bridge the gap between wanting to be more sustainable and achieving it?

Tools of the trade. Like other industries, sign making wasn't built on an environmental platform. Traditional tools and processes were geared to make graphics vibrant, durable and cost-effective. Those goals haven't changed, but we now know that some materials and methods developed decades ago may impact the environment.

Graphics businesses routinely store, use and dispose of chemicals such as inks, solvents, and cleaners. Sometimes viable sustainable alternatives do not exist. Or if they do, they may be prohibitively expensive, difficult to source, perform poorly, or require significant manufacturing changes in order to use them.

Exploring eco-options. It can be difficult, even impractical, to depart from materials and processes that you know work well. A good example is vinyl (PVC). It's durable, lightweight, rigid or flexible. It can be easily shaped, conveniently backed with adhesive, and produced in a range of colors.

Exploring eco-optionsVinyl's excellent performance, versatility and low cost have made it a popular choice for commercial graphics. But PVC is not biodegradable and can create disposal challenges. As the emphasis on sustainability continues to grow, the industry is working on developing affordable non-PVC alternatives that perform as well as their vinyl counterparts.

Know better, do better. Using new products and processes - and being unfamiliar with the quality they'll deliver - can be intimidating. Many sign manufacturers, however, are already avoiding potentially harmful materials or implementing approaches to better handle and dispose of them.

In making your business greener, you can prioritize initiatives that address several needs at one time - improving efficiency, meeting customer requirements, creating a safer working environment, and reducing waste handling costs (see sidebar).

Fortunately, there are resources to help you along the way. The EPA and state-level environmental agencies offer sustainability strategies. Industry associations like SGIA, ISA and FESPA are also excellent sources of information. SGIA's Sustainability Action Plan helps printing facilities understand environmental regulations in an easy-to-use checklist. The same checklist can help companies move toward Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership certification.


Sustainable practices may take effort, but they are definitely achievable. Contact 3M Commercial Graphics for more ideas and information.